The Vocabulary of Learning

I’ve always been fascinated by language, perhaps in part due to my own difficulty with the spoken aspect of it. I like to write but I hate to talk. I am a fast talker, a remnant of a childhood speech impediment, and I constantly feel like I’m struggling to slow down and make myself understood. This is part of my daily life and conversations so you can imagine how difficult it is for me to engage in public speaking where nerves speed up an already too-fast mode of speech. Because of this, I prefer to put things in writing. I am more articulate on paper and I don’t have to worry about the connection between my brain and my mouth shorting out as it often does when I talk out loud. I believe from there my love of language has evolved simply because I prefer to read and write, especially when it comes to academics. Because of this, I have thought a lot about how language affects the way that we communicate; as I am in the process of studying both the English language and a foreign language, the importance of thinkING about this has become abundantly clear.

On this subject, psychologists and linguists have come up with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which confirms something that I have believed for a long time: language directly affects the way that we think. The hypothesis breaks down this claim into two concepts, linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism, which work together to explain how language affects thought.  Linguistic relativity should be familiar to anyone who has studied another language to the point of talking about temporal grammar. The example the article gives is the English sentence “It rained last night.” We use a past verb tense to indicate the temporal quality of the event and that is the extent of what we need to consider when conveying this information. However, in other languages, it goes beyond this — in Turkish, for example, it is necessary to choose one of two past tenses depending on how you know the information. If you witnessed the rain directly, you use one tense, and if you figured it out based on clues or heard it second-hand, then you use the other past tense. Linguists hypothesize that these linguistic differences reflect the cultural values of the original speakers of that language. For example, the Navajo language marks verbs based on the shape of the object being talked about and the Korean language marks verbs based on the age difference between speaker and hearer, suggesting that these things were important to those cultures when their languages developed.

Linguistic determinism works similarly but has more to do with nouns than verb markings. In French and Spanish, there are two singular “you” pronouns — tu and vous for French, tu and usted for Spanish. These are based on the relationship of the speaker to the listener; for each language, the first indicates familiarity and the second indicates formality. In this case, the speaker has to make a choice about their relationship to the listener before they begin to talk. This is different from linguistic relativity because of this aspect of choice as opposed to just following already established conventions.

On a somewhat tangential note, this is why it is difficult to reconstruct languages without a written record such as Proto-Indo-European, the language that most modern European languages are based off, as well as a good host of Asian ones. We don’t know what the mode of thought was for that language (Was it based on shape? Age? Hierarchy? Any one of an infinite amount of possibilities?) so we may never actually know how it was supposed to sound when it was still a living language, which is completely fascinating to me.

It is difficult to figure out exactly how much language affects thought, as there are many other factors that do so. Nevertheless, it is clearly not an insignificant factor. Linguistic relativity and determinism unconsciously shape how we talk about events, how we conceive of objects and other people, and I’m sure shape is in ways more than I can possibly imagine, which is why I have been paying attention to the ways that the different lecturers in our class have been talking about the art of Steve Prince and other course concepts throughout the class.

Because of this, I have chosen the word “vocabulary” as my disciplinary term for this essay. I feel it encompasses everything I want to talk about with language as well as making space for me to talk about disciplinary differences, which is exactly what I intend to do.

The first definition of vocabulary provided by the Oxford Dictionary, which reads “The body of words used in a particular language,” addresses what I talked about above as encompassing the whole of a language. The subsets of any given language, which are also part of how the word vocabulary can be used, are far more interesting and much more suited to self-reflecting and these are: “The words used in a particular subject or sphere of activity or on a particular occasion” and “The body of words known to an individual person.”

Beginning with definition 1.1, “The words used in a particular subject or sphere of activity or on a particular occasion,” this class has certainly been an experiment in learning the vocabularies of other academic specialties and relating them back to the art of Prince. Personally, I came into this class knowing very little about art and the associated terminology. Because of this, the guest lectures were particularly helpful in giving us the words to talk about Prince’s art, as they brought in their expertise and addressed the art using what they knew, allowing us to profit from their knowledge and expand our own vocabularies. However, definition 1.2 of vocabulary, “The body of words known to an individual person,” is more related to my own personal growth. After all, if language is inherently tied to the ways that we think and perceive the world, then the vocabulary that we know within that language must count for something, right? Therefore, when I am talking about expanding my own personal vocabulary, I will be working with a blended definition of vocabulary based on these two definitions — words and concepts used in specific disciplines that, while I might have known of them and one or two of their meanings, were added to my vocabulary in their other definitions thanks to the guest lecturers and my own quest to expand my vocabulary through this course.

One lecture that particularly stood out to me was Dr. Levy’s lecture on challenging the basis of knowledge itself, where he proved, through Zeno’s Paradox of Motion, that even movement can be “proven” to be fake. The main point of the lecture was to inspire us to challenge our own preconceived notions of progress as it is discussed in the Souls of Black Folk “Of the Meaning of Progress,” but the message of questioning everything, from motion to definitions to language has been an important one to me in my work this semester. This certainly played a part in the writing of my blog post that challenged the idea that geography is solely a hard science. Moreover, this lecture reminded me that we need to think critically about things we take for granted, and for me,  that is my own personal vocabulary as it relates to the art of Steve Prince and related course concepts.

An example of this is the lecture given by Professor Dezarn on design language where he walked us through how artists talk about art. While I never actively engaged with these concepts in my blog posts (something I meant to do and never did), learning this language of design was invaluable both in defining what art is (according to Professor DeZarn, the intersection of craft, design, and content/concept) and increasing my own ability to appreciate and discuss the aesthetic value of Prince’s art in addition to analyzing it for social commentary. This is something I never would have been able to do without expanding my own vocabulary through Professor DeZarn’s lecture. Similarly, Professor Nicodemi’s lecture on perspective expanded my art-related vocabulary to include some of the mathematical language related to perspective which was also very helpful to me and increased my own understanding of how art functions beyond and within the finished product you see. Dr. Nicodemi’s lecture was particularly important because it challenged my own view of how different disciplines intersect — I never would have guessed that a math-based lecture would work in a class like this. However, not only did it work very well, but it also forced me to challenge my own preconceived notions of how seemingly unrelated disciplines work together and thus expand my working vocabulary in regard to Prince’s art.

A blog post that I wrote, DuBois and Sociology, is related to this concept of vocabulary of a specific discipline. In this post, I talked about The Souls of Black Folk and the differences in tone found within and how this relates to DuBois as a sociologist. Early sociology, which DuBois engaged in and was a founding member of, had a certain style of language that comes across as personal and almost degrading in some parts of it. This comes across in parts of Souls of Black Folk, but also in his other writings. ThinkING about this allowed me to come to terms with the fact that, while DuBois is the founding father of race studies in America, a lot of his work feels judgemental and is uncomfortable to read because of how much it sounds like victim-blaming. Thus, through the lectures and in thinkING about the early days of sociology through the lens of Souls of Black Folk, I have begun to realize how much academic disciplines and the specific lexicon they use affects our learning and view of the things we study.

Personal vocabulary is also an important part of the name of the Baby Dolls, something pointed out in the chapter “Operationalizing ‘Baby’ for Our Own Good.” In this chapter, Melanie Bratcher “fleshes out some lyrics from the 1890s through 1922 that  refer to women as “baby,” “doll,” or “baby doll” and she “explores and explains some cultural intersections in the usage of these terms and contextualizes the potential and power of the culture that the Baby Dolls wielded, as it relates to the song lyrics” (75). This vocabulary of infantilizing black women could be read as demeaning, but in analyzing the lyrics, it reveals that these terms actually can and do serve as terms of empowerment. The Baby Dolls took these terms and made them part of their own vocabulary of liberation.

I can’t claim that this class has inspired me to create a feminist masking group because of how I use my personal vocabulary like the Baby Dolls, but I also can’t claim that I have come out of this process unscathed. In adding the vocabulary used for talking about and used by the Baby Dolls, I have been able to challenge my own assumptions about dancing, for one, because I learned more about dance and how it can be used. In listening to Dr. Broomfield and trying to dance myself and then connecting it to the learning we have been doing throughout this course, I was inspired to do more research and in writing that self-reflective blog post, I realized my own vocabulary had expanded to include dance in its full potential — not just as performance art but as an active act of protest. Thus, like Dr. Levy’s lecture asked us to do, I was able to question what I know about something as universal as dance and become a better, more understanding person.

I could spend all day talking about each lecture and reading and the ways that they have expanded my personal vocabulary and thus increased my understanding of art and the world, that would take all day and be unreadable because of its length. Instead of doing this, I want to highlight how important this course has been overall for challenging preconceived notions of disciplinary terms, among other things, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to increase the scope of my vocabulary and thus have been given the opportunity to expand the language that very well might direct my thoughts and actions in ways that not even I could possibly know.

One Reply to “The Vocabulary of Learning”

  1. I think this post, as always, was well thought out and full of passion. Your reflections on both the individual lectures and the required reading from Souls of Black Folk and Walking Raddy, and the vocabulary you learned, enrich your reflection and show how you have been influenced by this course.
    P.S. I have gotten to know you better this semester and I have found you to be articulate and intelligent in both your speech and writing. Don’t doubt yourself.

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